One of us: How Margaret Thatcher was both courteous and kind to all

An extract from the sermon by Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, at St Paul’s yesterday

AFTER the storm of a life lived in the heat of political controversy, there is a great calm.

The storm of conflicting opinions centres on the Mrs Thatcher who became a symbolic figure – even an “ism”. Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings.

There is an important place for debating politics and legacy – but here and today is neither the time nor the place. This, at Lady Thatcher’s personal request, is a funeral service. This is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling, and for the simple truths which transcend political debate.

One thing that everyone has noted is the courtesy and personal kindness which she showed to those who worked for her, as well as her capacity to reach out to the young, and often also to those who were not, in the world’s eyes, “important”.

She was always reaching out and trying to help in typically uncoded terms. I was once sitting next to her at some City function. In the midst of describing how Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom had influenced her thinking, she suddenly grasped my wrist and said very emphatically, “Don’t touch the duck pate, Bishop – it’s very fattening”.

Her upbringing was in the Methodism to which this country owes a huge debt. When it was time to challenge the political and economic status quo in nineteenth century Britain, it was so often the Methodists who took the lead. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, for example, were not led by proto-Marxists but by Methodist lay preachers.

Today’s first lesson describes the struggle with the principalities and powers. Perseverance in struggle and the courage to be were characteristic of Margaret Thatcher. In a setting like this, in the presence of the leaders of the nation, it is easy to forget the immense hurdles she had to climb. Beginning in the upper floors of her father’s grocer’s shop in Grantham, through Oxford as a scientist and, later, as part of the team that invented Mr Whippy ice cream, she embarked upon a political career. By the time she entered Parliament in 1959, she was part of a cohort of only 4 per cent of women in the House of Commons.

She applied herself to her work with formidable energy and passion. But she continued to reflect on how faith and politics related to one another. In a St Lawrence Jewry lecture she said that, “Christianity offers no easy solutions to political and economic issues. It teaches us that there is some evil in everyone and that it cannot be banished by sound policies and institutional reforms... We cannot achieve a compassionate society simply by passing new laws and appointing more staff to administer them.”

She was very aware that there are prior dispositions which are needed to make market economies and democratic institutions function well: the habits of truth-telling, mutual sympathy, and the capacity to cooperate. In her own words, “The basic ties of the family are at the heart of our society and are the very nursery of civic virtue.” Life is a struggle to make the right choices and to achieve liberation from dependence. The word Margaret Thatcher used at St Lawrence Jewry was “interdependence”.

She referred to the Christian doctrine, “that we are all members one of another, expressed in the concept of the Church on earth as the Body of Christ. From this we learn our interdependence and the great truth that we do not achieve happiness or salvation in isolation from each other but as members of Society”. Her later remark about there being no such thing as “society” has been misunderstood and refers to some impersonal entity to which we are tempted to surrender our independence.

As we all know, the manner of her leaving office was traumatic but the loss of Denis was a grievous blow indeed, and then there was a struggle with increasing debility from which she has now been liberated. The natural cycle leads inevitably to decay, but the dominant note of a Christian funeral service, after the sorrow and the memories, is hope.

What unites Margaret Roberts of Grantham with Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven and constitutes her identity? The complex pattern of memories, aspirations and actions which make up a character were carried for a time by the atoms of her body, but we believe are also stored up in the Cloud of God’s being.

What, in the end, makes our lives seem valuable after the storm and stress has passed and there is a great calm? The questions most frequently asked at such a time concern us all. How loving have I been? Have I found joy within myself, or am I still looking for it in externals outside myself?

Margaret Thatcher had a sense of this, which she expressed in her address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland: “I leave you with the earnest hope that may we all come nearer to that other country whose ‘ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace’.”

T.S. Eliot, in the poem quoted in this service sheet, says, “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living”. In this Easter season Death is revealed, not as a full stop but as the way into another dimension of Life. As Eliot puts it: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Rest eternal grant unto her O Lord and let light perpetual shine upon her.

The sermon by The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, was delivered during the funeral of Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, at St Paul’s Cathedral on 17 April 2013.

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